Oprah Winfrey will soon host a conversation about “American Dirt,” a novel mired in controversy that’s also the latest selection for her book club.
It’s too little too late. Winfrey should rescind her support now.
In nearly 25 years, only once has the entertainment mogul yanked a coveted book club endorsement. That came in 2006, after James Frey’s memoir about his addiction and recovery, “A Million Little Pieces,” turned out to be far more fiction than fact.
“American Dirt” needs to be the second.
For months, Jeanine Cummins’s novel about a Mexican mother and her young son heading to the border to escape a drug cartel has been widely criticized in Latinx circles for perpetuating what writer and translator David Bowles calls a “pastiche of stereotypes and melodramatic tropes of the sort one might expect from an author who did not grow up within Mexican culture.”
Cummins has long identified as white. In interviews, she now mentions her Puerto Rican grandmother, and some headlines call her “a white Latina.” She says she deeply researched the book, including spending time in Mexico.
Yet this isn’t about how Cummins self-identifies. It’s about a novel fostering stereotypes, and what happens when communities of color get shut out from telling their own stories.
After a publishing industry bidding war, Cummins received a seven-figure advance, and the movie rights have been sold. Her novel received glowing blurbs from Stephen King and John Grisham. She got a major credibility boost from acclaimed Latinx authors Sandra Cisneros, who called the book “masterful,” and Julia Alvarez, who said it’s “a dazzling accomplishment.” All appear on the book’s back cover.
In the ensuing debate, neither Cisneros nor Alvarez have stepped forward to defend a book to which they lent their names and, especially, their reputations.
Yet it was Winfrey’s anointing that catapulted the book into public consciousness and a rigorous debate about cultural appropriation, stereotypes, and how the publishing industry does not value communities of color telling their own stories.
Appearing on “CBS This Morning” last week with Cummins, Winfrey said, “I thought this humanized that migration process in a way that nothing else I had ever felt or seen had.” The book, she said, “changed the way I see what it means to be an immigrant trying to come to this country.”
Not children in cages. Not the bodies of Oscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his young daughter, Angie Valeria, Salvadoran refugees who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande. Not Juan de León Gutiérrez, 16; Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7; Felipe Gómez Alonzo, 8, and other children who have died in the custody of this savage administration. For Winfrey, what “humanized” these stories is a novel that’s margarine pretending to be butter.
Two chapters into “American Dirt,” I gave up. Cummins’s overwrought writing style wore on me, as did her random sprinkling of Spanish words and phrases — abuela, balón, fútbol — throughout her narrative (in italics), as if to give her book an unearned authenticity.
Like a case of acid reflux, the book regurgitated my reaction when Kathryn Stockwell’s “The Help” hit bestseller lists in 2011. Ostensibly about the lives of black maids in 1960s Mississippi, it instead resurrected an annoyingly evergreen trope — the white savior.
“American Dirt” also serves hollow, cliche-ridden representations of the people about which it purportedly cares. Still, this is the novel Winfrey, whose book club has featured few Latinx authors among its 80-plus selections, chose, lifting Cummins from obscurity to literary celebrity.
In a recent Instagram post, Winfrey, who had remained mostly silent after her initial selection announcement, said, “Now it has become clear to me from the outpouring, may I say, of very passionate opinions that this selection has struck an emotional chord and created a need for a deeper, more substantive discussion.”
That discussion will air on “Oprah’s Book Club” in March on Apple TV+. It’s a conversation that will matter only if it’s a meaningful step toward systemic changes in the publishing industry instead of a self-serving revenue stream designed only to pacify communities of color tired of being ignored and unheard.
When Cummins was told that her novel “American Dirt” had been chosen for the book club, she said these were “the four words every writer dreams of hearing — ‘Jeanine, it’s Oprah Winfrey.’ ”
Here are the four words many now want to hear from Winfrey: “I’m withdrawing my recommendation.”